So, after a long, long season, the UK Elite League comes to its all-singing, all-dancing conclusion this weekend with the traditional weekend knees-up in Nottingham known as the Playoff Finals. Two semis on Saturday, and a final on Sunday (there’s also the consolation “bronze medal game” for the semi-final losers, but we’ll treat that game like the irrelevance it is for the vast majority of EIHL fans and not even discuss it).
Nottingham’s National Ice Centre will once again be a truly neutral venue this year thanks to the Chuck Weber Revolution in Coventry knocking out the hometown Panthers. With unfancied Hull knocking out Braehead and Belfast knocking out Cardiff, only one of the top-four from the regular season makes it, but that one is league champions Sheffield, who are already positioned as favourites and have the high expectations of their fanbase riding on their shoulders as they look to complete a double season.
However, as we know in the playoffs, when you’re two games from success, anyone can win, and anyone can lose. On Saturday all four teams have 60 minutes to extend their season one more meaningful day and finish the year with playoff glory. Anything can happen.
So, let’s look at how all four teams in Nottingham can become playoff champions this weekend. And also how they can lose it.
SHEFFIELD STEELERS – THE UNCROWNED KINGS
Why they’ll win the title: That top line, for a start. The trio of Mike Forney, Colton Fretter and consensus Elite League Player Of The Year Mathieu Roy is one of, if not the most lethal unit in the league, bar none. Those three players should see Gerad Adams thanking the hockey gods for their chemistry, scoring ability and more to the point ability to produce in the (vast majority) of big games. Behind them, Josh Unice has been a revelation in net after being brought in as an unheralded “temporary” replacement for the injured Frank Doyle, and defensively the Steelers have been far stronger and more composed than this season with the likes of Ben O’Connor and Darrell Hay being valuable contributors at both ends of the ice.
But the main terror is up front. When they’re on their game, the Steelers can roll four strong lines that attack in waves and in Mathieu Roy they’ve got one of the most dangerous forwards the EIHL has ever seen. When on their game, Sheffield will just keep knocking on the door until they batter it down-and that’s what they’ll need to do against the opposition this weekend.
Why they’ll lose the title: Sometimes, Sheffield simply don’t turn up. Or if they do, they’re neutralised by a team that’s worked out the way they play and counters it perfectly. If they’re not given space and time and allowed to play their high-tempo, high-intensity game, then the Steelers can run riot, particularly if their special teams are firing (look at their 11-0 victory over title rivals Cardiff). However, if the other team is shutting that game down…there’s not much of a plan B (again, look at Sheffield v Cardiff-this time the Challenge Cup Final). The Steelers have all the talent, and sometimes all the workrate…but when one or the other decides not to be at full contribution, they have looked a very ordinary team – as shown by the fact that against their own conference they actually have a slightly lower win percentage than Nottingham, and relied on a near-100% record v Gardiner teams to carry them over the league line (funny, all that moaning about Braehead riding a weaker conference to a title seems to have stopped now).
They’re also the favourites, so are going out there with a massive target on their backs. It only takes one team to hit it over the weekend, or a hot goalie on the other team, and they might see their dream turn to a nightmare.
HULL STINGRAYS – THE MIRACLE-IN-WAITING
Why they’ll win: The Stingrays, simply put, have nothing to lose. They are the team who’ve already slain one titan in order to be here, coming from behind against Braehead to win in OT of the 2nd leg. They’re already above their season expectations, arguably, just by making it to the weekend.
But they’re not a team to discount. If you were designing a team to win an individual hockey game against more skilled and talented opponents, then Hull’s disruptive-yet-fearless style is one that you’d seriously consider emulating. They’ve got young players who’ve become stars this season in Jordan Mayer, Zach Hervato and the (unfortunately injured) Cory Tanaka, and have proven many times this season that, over 60 minutes, they are more than capable of beating more illustrious opponents. Add in a bit of local spice with the Yorkshire Derby in the semi final and anything can happen.
Why they won’t win: All of the benefits for Hull – that they’re coming in with an underdog spirit, can beat any team on any night, etc…are also, ironically, reasons why they may not. In David Brown the Stingrays have a useful netminder, but can he stand up to the onslaught of Sheffield in the semi final – a team that has won 15 games more than them?
A young squad with an average age of 25 is a factor here, too…all the other teams in the finals are far more experienced and come with far greater pedigree, so there is absolutely no margin for error whatsoever. Coach Omar Pacha knows his team will have to play smart and simple, restricting the scoring chances…can they do that consistently enough to stop not just the powerhouse Steelers, but whoever they face in the final?
COVENTRY BLAZE – THE SPOILERS
Why they’ll win: The Blaze have seen an incredible turnaround from a collection of individuals who barely seemed to know where many were on the ice under Marc Lefebvre to a cohesive, hard-working if uninspiring unit under Chuck Weber. But one thing has remained common under both coaches – their unstinting reliance on Brian Stewart in net. It’s amazing the Canadian hasn’t already needed extensive back surgery, since he’s been carrying 18 players in blue on it for practically all of the past 8 months, and Chuck Weber’s defence-first system has only exacerbated the strain. However, Stewart has responded admirably, and is arguably the biggest reason the Blaze are here at all, never mind why they’ll win the title.
However, the Blaze aren’t just a one-man team…they also rely equally heavily on offensive talisman Ryan O’Marra. Practically anything good this team does going forward involves the big centre…he’s their leader in goals, assists and points for a reason. If he doesn’t fire, the Blaze don’t. If he does, and the team commit to Weber’s defence first strategy, then they’re tough to break down and will always be in games. That could be crucial this weekend.
Why they won’t win: You can’t build a castle on foundations of sand, and you can’t build a consistently successful team that relies so heavily on so small a number of players. Brian Stewart HAS to be on his game for the Blaze. If he is even slightly less than excellent, then the low-scoring Blaze offence simply cannot be relied upon to bail him out, both due to the lack of true scorers and Weber’s defence-first, rigid system. If there’s the slightest chink in the armour, then the likes of Belfast and Sheffield will exploit it ruthlessly.
The Blaze are like Sheffield in the respect that they, too, can often simply decide not to turn up. Mentally, the team are capable of imploding at the worst possible moment into penalty trouble, too…something that could be disastrous in a “lose-and-go-home” situation against a team just hitting form like Belfast – we’ve seen what the Giants did to Cardiff when they had an off day. They have history of disappearing in several elimination games this season-see the Challenge Cup QF first leg and both games of the semi, for example. Can they handle the pressure now the Blaze fanbase actually think they can win?
The Blaze fanbase are currently positioning themselves as the desperate hard-working underdogs…which is ironic when they have one of the most expensive rosters in the EIHL. This weekend is when we see for sure whether Chuck Weber can make the team, and his defence-first system, worth the investment put into it all year.
BELFAST GIANTS – THE RISING TIDE
Why they’ll win The Giants are the momentum team. They come into the weekend having pulled off a superb victory against the fancied Cardiff Devils in the quarter-finals, demolishing the Red Army in their own rink last Sunday with a superb, balanced display of attacking hockey that finally saw the team reach the potential that Giants fans think it should have hit all year and not just in patches. In Keefe-Lloyd-Garside they have the best shutdown line in the league, one that’s an absolute nightmare to play against and built for tight, hard-checking playoff games against stubborn opponents. They also have the added emotional motivation of Giants hero and talisman Rob Sandrock retiring after this weekend, which could carry them through to greater feats when the chips are down, and an offensive unit that finally displayed its full power against Cardiff.
In facing Coventry they’re also being given an opponent that doesn’t really focus on exploiting their weaknesses…the Giants are more than capable of picking apart a defence-first system if necessary.
Then, of course, there’s the motivation of being losing playoff finalists last year…to Sheffield.That will have stung all year, and along with the loss of their league title, this is the perfect time for this Giants squad to show that it’s still hungry, still up for the fight, and to answer the criticisms it’s faced all year. That’s a powerful driving force.
Why they won’t win: For all the talk of the Giants dominance last year, this team is not that team. Others have improved and the league season showed that up in glaring fashion. Under a new coach, the Giants this year have not had the aura of invincibility they carried around last year.
Like Coventry and Sheffield, they’re also prone to off-nights…have one of those against the Blaze and their weekend could almost be over before it’s begun if Brian Stewart, as expected, is on form. The Giants also nearly sabotaged themselves against Cardiff last week thanks to penalty trouble…get into discipline problems this PO weekend and they’ll once again be asking for trouble.
So there we are. Four teams with an eye on the playoff trophy. All with a chance of winning it, and coverage live on Premier Sports.
It’s shaping up to be a hell of a weekend of hockey, whoever wins.
Good luck, gentlemen. May the best team win.